TEKNAF, Bangladesh – Taking perilous boat journeys to escape killing and persecution in their home country, ethnic-Bengali Muslims, known as Rohingyas, are recounting horrors in Burma.
“My father was shot dead by the Burmese military in front me,” Zohara Khatun, a Rohingya Muslim who fled Burma to Bangladesh, told the BBC News Online.
“Our entire village was destroyed. We ran for our lives.”
The 30-year-old is one of hundreds of Rohingya Muslims, who fled deadly sectarian violence in the western Burmese state of Rakhine to Bangladesh.
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She says that her village was attacked by Buddhists during a recent bout of sectarian violence in Rakhine last month.
“I still don’t know what happened to my mother.”
Sectarian violence plagued the western Rakhine state last month after the killing of 10 Muslims in an attack by Buddhist vigilantes on their bus.
The attack followed the rape and murder of a woman in the state, which borders Bangladesh, with Buddhists blaming Muslims for that.
Thousands of homes have been burnt in the violence, forcing tens of thousands of people to escape for their lives. There were reports of extrajudicial killings of Muslims.
The official death toll of the rioting and its aftermath has been put at 78, although the real figure may be much higher.
“My husband was killed in the riots,” recalled Sayeda Begum, a Rohingya Muslim woman.
“The Burmese police were shooting only at the Muslims, not the Buddhists. The military was just watching from the rooftop and they did not intervene.”
Amnesty International said Friday that Rohingya Muslims are increasingly being hit with targeted attacks that have included killings, rape and physical abuse.
Described by the UN as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities, Myanmar’s ethnic-Bengali Muslims, generally known as the Rohingyas, are facing a catalogue of discrimination in their homeland.
They have been denied citizenship rights since an amendment to the citizenship laws in 1982 and are treated as illegal immigrants in their own home.
Myanmar’s government as well as the Buddhist majority refuse to recognize the term “Rohingya”, referring to them as “Bengalis”.
Many Rohingya Muslims find no option but to take risky journeys by sea to neighboring Bangladesh to flee persecution in their homeland.
“We were floating on water for six days. I could not feed my children for days,” Khatun recalled.
“When we tried to reach Bangladesh, we were not allowed to enter. We did not know where to go.”
Bangladeshi authorities have pushed back nearly 1,500 Rohingya Muslims back into Burma since June, saying it cannot afford to help them.
“It is really putting a direct effect on our social stability as well as the economy. If this influx continues then the problem of stability will be at stake,” Lt Col Zahid Hasan of the Bangladeshi border guards said.
Human rights groups have piled up pressures on Dhaka to allow in Rohingya Muslim refugees into the country.
“We understand it is not that easy. So we advocate with the government of Bangladesh to give at least temporary protection status to those arriving from Rakhine state of Myanmar [Burma],” said Dirk Hebecker, a senior official from the UN Refugee Agency in the Bangladeshi town of Cox’s Bazaar.
There are an estimated 400,000 Rohingya Muslims in Bangladesh.
Dhaka has repeatedly called for Burma to take back Rohingya Muslim refugees, but without much success.
Earlier this month, Burmese President Thein Sein said that Rohingyas should be settled in a third country.
“We are concerned by the president’s comments,” said Ahmed Hossain, a Rohingya community leader in Kutupalong camp, near Cox’s Bazaar.
“We belong to Burma and we want to go back to our villages. It is difficult to live in refugee camps like this.
“We are willing to go back to Burma only if our security and rights are guaranteed.”